Prince of Persia creator Jordan Mechner has given an emotionally charged presentation at Gamelab in Barcelona, advising his audience to embrace their shadows in order to stay sane.
Mechner began by recounting a story from his early years, talking about time he spent in the Spanish town of Salamanca, after the release of Prince of Persia. Living in a freezing student room in a family house during the winter, Mechner was shivering under a blanket, waiting for the host family to vacate the kitchen so he could get into the room and get warm.
He'd already made his first game, Karateka, in his final year of college - a game that was number one in the US during his year of graduation. Royalties for Prince of Persia were flowing in rapidly. He could, said the developer, have afforded a decent hotel, or even bought an apartment. He should have been living it up, but instead he was operating under a self-imposed fun-embargo.
"It's as if there was some voice inside of me, that didn't want to feel like a success, a big shot," Mechner explained. "I went 6,000 miles away to a place where nobody knew me, where they wouldn't treat me like a bigshot, where they'd treat me like nothing. If you'd asked me what I wanted that year, I'd have said that I wanted to have fun, but something inside was saying that this was not the time to celebrate, not the time to have fun. It was as if what I needed was not to be raised up, but to be cast down. That something inside me was my shadow. It was telling me that this was what I needed."
"It's as if there was some voice inside of me, that didn't want to feel like a success, a big shot"
Everyone carries their own shadow, said Mechner - a position also held by the psychologist Carl Jung, and Mechner's shadow has played a significant part in his work. Jung, and Mechner after him, believe that everyone has a list of qualities which they feel are desirable or decent - practices which will help them to succeed and be seen as socially worthy. Encouraging the audience to participate and list their own, Mechner revealed his own list, largely garnered from the lessons learned in childhood from his parents. He then asked for the opposites of those qualities - those qualities which constitute your shadow.
Jung argued that we are born complete, a total package of practices, which we gradually edit and sculpt into a persona as we grow older, removing from that 'total' persona to leave the face you present to the world - and yourself. Much of what you edit becomes your shadow persona.
However, that shadow isn't inherently bad, he argues. It becomes 'angry' because we do not accept it. The more that we're bathed in the light of our desirable qualities, says Jung, the darker the shadow becomes in comparison.
Speaking about creating Karateka, Mechner talked about everyone's tendency to create a mental CV for their life, including only triumphs, happinesses and achievements. Reading from a handwritten journal he kept during his college years, the developer related how much his college life had actually been not just characterised by success and achievement, despite creating Karateka, but also by the more typical student characteristics of sloth, hedonism and the prioritisation of almost everything over work and productivity. He was at odds with himself, operating a cycle of positive and negative behaviours.
Even when acknowledging that he was embodying the characteristics which he'd assigned to his shadow, Mechner was striving for their opposites, creating dichotomy. He likened it to the building pressure in a steam engine, alternating good behaviour with the catharsis of bad - something he believes is an essential part of human psychology, telling the audience: "It kept me sane."
Mechner then went into depth about the process of creating Prince of Persia, crediting his close, late friend Tomi Pierce with insisting that he add the element of combat, as well as a great deal of emotional support during the course of development. Pierce later went on to co-author what Mechner calls his most ambitious game, The Last Express.
If you've played Prince of Persia, you'll know that the player character's shadow plays a fairly major role in the game. After jumping through a mirror, the protagonist's shadow is separated from him, weakening the player and heading off to create havoc. Throughout the game, that shadow taunts and frustrates the Prince, staying just out of reach until finally, the two are embroiled in a head to head confrontation. It's a conceit used in dozens of games and elsewhere in entertainment - the ultimate battle against oneself and your weaknesses, but Mechner added a twist.
In the final confrontation with his shadow, every strike that the Prince lands also deals damage to himself. It's an impossible fight to win with violence - you cannot kill yourself without dying. Instead, the player has to accept the shadow, put down their sword and embrace their own darkside, becoming whole again as a result. So it must be in life, said Mechner. He didn't know it at the time, but Mechner had come to exactly the same conclusion as Jung did: a healthy psychological state is dependent on the acceptance of your negative qualities, the catharsis of sometimes allowing it to run free. Likening the process to the building pressure in a steam engine, Mechner explained that productivity and cheerfulness were key desirable qualities for him - making laziness and melancholy attributes of his shadow. Not easy feelings to avoid during the process of development.
"I tried really hard to push my shadow down for four years, trying to make the game fun... all of this required that my shadow not interfere. I think, by the end, it was pretty energised"
"I tried really hard to push my shadow down for four years," said Mechner of the time spent on Prince of Persia, "trying to make the game fun, trying to meet the deadlines, trying to get rid of bugs - all of this required that my shadow not interfere. I think, by the end, it was pretty energised.
"I was building up a shadow that needed to be sad. I think I was following a pattern of what Jung called the 'Eternal Boy'. This happens to a lot of us, but especially those who have success at an early age. We don't suffer, things are going great. When I was 27, I'd shipped two big games. Something inside me said that couldn't go on."
Mechner further illustrated his point with a discussion of 'ash rituals' - a story from Norse fairytales where a young man must go through a period of listlessness, laying amongst the ashes on the floor before he can rise and become a man. Mechner feels he never had that ash ritual, tying him to the eternal boy.
"Every rise must have a fall. But we're supposed to constantly rise. So I went 6,000 miles to a place where nobody knew me, lived the smallest life possible, refused a lot of the opportunities which were coming in. I think I dispersed a lot of shadow energy."
And it's a practice he has to remind himself to keep up to this very day, be it by venting to his wife or indulging his inner batchelor with an occasional lazy coffee, or buying ice cream and not taking home any to his family - even games can fulfil this, allowing us to do things which society never would. These small indulgences, he said, this catharsis, keeps the shadows just well fed enough to control them. By staying aware of them, you can prevent them from taking you over. All work and no play doesn't just make Jack a dull boy, it can turn him into a monster. Something to remember next time you're in crunch.